(C) Copyright John Peter Luke Saunders, 2000 AD
“Historians exercise great power and some of
them know it. They recreate the past, changing it to fit their own interpretations.
Thus, they change the future as well.”
Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune, p. 403
Before looking at the source data within it’s
historical context, this chapter will first address the problematic nature of
history, representation and interpretation.
It is argued that “even the best ethnographic texts – serious, true fictions – are systems, or economies, of truth. Power and history work through them, in ways their authors cannot fully control. Ethnographic truths are thus inherently partial – committed and incomplete.” (Clifford, 1986, p. 7). It is impossible to write a “complete” description of any people. Writing is thus a selective process, foregrounding some elements over others. Moreover, even the form the writing must take – in this case the strictures of the academic thesis – biases the representation of knowledge.
How different would it be, for instance, if this thesis were an oral presentation? Or a non academic text, or fireside conversation, or even a mural? While I am not claiming that the medium is the message, it is worth bearing in mind that the very nature of an academic text lends itself to certain kinds of discussion and exploration and not to others.
Of course, no writer can be truly “neutral and objective” – every writer writes from a socio-historical context, a site or location defined by class, gender and ethnicity among other elements. For this reason any ethnographic or historical text is “committed” – certain values will be inscribed within the preferred readings for the implied reader. Thus “the final trait of effective history is its affirmation of knowledge as perspective.” (Foucault, 1977, p. 156). Historians and ethnographers always view the subject of their work from an angle which is not omniscient, and certainly not neutral. Because of this, their perspective centres some elements and marginalises – or excludes – others. Their own site also affects the way they interpret the texts/data available to them. As Said termed it, these representations are not “natural representations” (Said, 1985, p. 21) While it has been claimed that in many cases “Historians take unusual pains to erase the elements in their work which reveal their grounding in a particular place and time, their preferences in a controversy” (Foucault, 1977, p. 156)
Historical representation has, in the past,
contributed to the marginalisation of the Irish – minimising the efforts and
culture of the Irish, relegating them to a peripheral position on the fringe
of Europe, a Celtic anachronism born of isolation, a mere curiosity compared
to the societies which eventually become colonial powers.
Yet counter readings of a such a view of history are possible. It has been argued, for instance, that the role of Irish monks played no small part in the preservation and distribution of manuscripts following the fall of the Roman Empire.
This thesis is concerned with primarily with
memory, stories and representation. The historical veracity of any given story
is not under question here – in many cases, the stories would be impossible
to verify objectively, and authority here is not sought in trying to prove things
Just as the stories of St Patrick are part of the collective Irish identity, the objective historical veracity of those stories is not the aim of this work: their social and cultural functions are.
This thesis is not concerned with historical ‘truth’ but discursive representation.
Trouble arises when the two are confused, or when the two are juxtaposed to form a hierarchy. On one hand Irish tales of the supernatural, for instance, are clearly just that: stories. On the other hand, this should not be used to justify the stance that ‘history is true because it is written down but the stories are worth no more than fairy tales’. History is still formed via a selective and subjective process of representation. Stories can and often do (as will be shown) preserve elements of memory relating to events which may be quite convincingly argued to have actually happened: some stories have their origins as eyewitness accounts. And the stories, whether fanciful or realistic or (as is often the case) containing elements of both, may be argued to have survived because they contain subjective “truths”: core values which are transmitted and reinforced through the transmission of the family memory.
The thesis itself, the lens for viewing some
of these stories, is itself not a neutral instrument. Rather than claim perfect
neutrality, this text instead is self referential, revealing it’s angles and
biases. Thus, while acknowledging its partial and committed nature, the text
remained honest rather than attempt a deceit.
Said, as a Palestinian writing about the representation of Palestinians in the West and the general discourse of Orientialism, also found this a necessary step to take.
“The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is “knowing thyself” as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory” (Said, 1985, p. 25)
Morever, this self awareness applies not only to the values inherent in one’s self but in one’s school(s) of methodology- “For if Orientalism has historically been too smug, too insulated, too positivistically confident in its ways and its premises, then one way of opening oneself to what one studies in or about the Orient is reflexively to submit one’s method to critical scrutiny.” (Said, 1985, p. 327)
It is thus necessary later in the thesis to briefly engage with the bias inherent in the writing of this text and the rationale for the methodology. Rather than run to a semblance of neutrality, the aim is to ensure that the choices which were – and must be always be – made were theoretically and critically justifiable, and thus arguable as a valid position to take.
In short, this thesis is written by one trained in the post structuralist and the post colonialist schools, in part dedicated to the deconstruction of power relations. Separated both temporally and spatially from the culture of my forebears, the thesis is part of a larger process to preserve and renew the collective memory and traditions of my line – something arising from the subjective decision that such things are worth preserving as a gestalt, useful and insightful and preferable to merely conforming to one of the usual mainstream subcultures expected of Gen-X. In the post modern moment of isolation and fracture, preservation and renewal of one’s cultural heritage is a way of discovering and reforging one’s own identity in a way that challenges the expectations that society imposes upon the individual.
Methodology will be discussed in Chapter 5.
In addressing the politics of representation,
there is one question which cannot be avoided: Who has the right (or write?)
to speak for whom?
Fortunately, the resolution of this question in this case does not require the usual minefield-delicate negotiation. This text only claims to speak for a single “line” of Hy-Fiachrach descent, a single extended family, rather than a global collective entity of multiple clans. Within this line “I” have the right to speak – within certain parameters - through consensus and permission. Moreover, the usual problematics associated with an outsider representing an ethnic group to themselves are avoided: I am counted insider of the blood (though even now I cringe at the term, which is revealing in itself) – a member of the family “tribe”.
An important point to note in the analysis of any text originating from an ‘oral’ culture (whether that be an Irish story, an Aboriginal art work or a North American Indian dance) is that many – if not all – of such texts are double coded. That is, these texts have both a “common” meaning (which is accessible to all who here the text) and a closed or sacred meaning (which is available only to those who have the cultural resources to be able to interpret the text at that level). “Therein is the true dialectic of the sacred: by the mere fact of showing itself, the sacred hides itself.” (Moore, 1996, p. 300)
This thesis is something of a hybrid: although the subject matter and the inspiration comes from an oral tradition, the form of the thesis is emphatically written in it’s conventions and narrative characteristics. The thesis is primarily limited in it’s discussion to the “common” meanings (restricted further by the parameters of academic discussion), yet even parts of this thesis are double coded.
The final question to be addressed in this
chapter is the debate surrounding the kind of validity a language has a representative
tool for ethnographic research.
The central question is this: “Can research such as this be written in English (though the oral tradition itself is no longer in Gaelic in the current generation) without being severely limited in it’s cultural nuances? Is English a valid language for writing about a cultural form of Irish extraction?”
The pro Gaelic side may be interpreted as having the following stance: “for Harnett the loss of the Irish language was a cataclysmic blow to the psyche of the Irish people in that it ripped out and tore assunder all the secret interiors that sponsor the manifold activities that go to make up a culture” (Welch, 1993, p. 3) while the pro-English (or any other language, for that matter) responds with the following view - “On the other side of the coin are the linguistic or cultural behaviourists. They say: language is merely a set of counters; and those mysteries to which the cultural nationalists claim are romanticism, mantra seeking, bog digging for treasure troves of words. The cultural behaviourists would argue that the Irish people should get on with what they have” (Welch, 1993, p. 3)
It is argued by this thesis that the basis of the
entire question is undermined if one accepts, as Horst Ruthrof argues in The
Body In Language, that the deep structure of language is non verbal.
It is my subjective stance that the pro-Gaelic position has a limited validity if one accepts the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so far as that “language only structures linguistic thought, or when we think in words” - but even then language no control over structuring all the quasi-perceptual/bodily/emotional connotations which generate meaning for those words. However, it is acknowledged that there are some words in Gaelic – and the deeper non verbal structures behind those words – which do not have a simple or a focused equivalent in English. “Kything” is one of those words, which becomes important in Chapter 7. In such a case where no “equivalent counter” exists, it is argued that language DOES become important.
The choice of language also may important for connotative and symbolic reasons: not for any extra representational power, but as a symbolic of resistance to the colonial centre – a way of saying ‘this is our language’ which is defined as “not English”. Language, as has already been argued, can also be a power tool for inclusion/exclusion within a social group.
For these reasons and more, I fully agree with the move to re acquire/re establish the Gaelic language, both globally (especially in Ireland) and within my own family.
The stance that I have chosen does not ignore
the politics of language. English is most universal language on the planet in
it’s various forms. It is the language of the powerful, and currently the dominant
language of the Internet.
The choice of English as the language of representation for this thesis has a two fold justification. Firstly, I do not speak Gaelic. Secondly, the use of English is subversive in itself: it is a deliberate act of using the language of the colonial centre against the centre.
In terms of representation, there is one final
point which needs to be made. It is recognised that “live” languages are alive
for a reason – languages need to grow, new words need to be created and added
in order to cope with continually expanding and evolving scientific and social
It is recognised that even for the purposes of ethnographic research or intra-family communication, we may not yet have all the words we need. Whenever we as researchers, or we as kindred, push the limits of language or find ourselves “lost for words” – there we have found an area where language needs to grow.
For the academic world, the creation of new words (particularly in the sciences) is commonplace. Even the argot of the average person today would be incomprehensible to someone living a mere 25 years ago – from “Internet” to “cyberpunk” to “Jedi Knight” to “Harry Potter”, the language has grown as new technological and cultural phenomena have emerged and become part of (at least) the western English speaking collective consciousness.
Yet the common mistake is to view tradition
as fixed and static, and thus also the language associated with it – even though
such memories are transmitted through generations which live in changing times
and different social realities. Simple observation tells us that language and
culture can – and must – change, even if change is in some cases cyclic.
Nevertheless, almost everyone whom I have spoken to in the course of researching this thesis have never considered the option – or the ability – to create new words to fit where language fails.
The struggle, thus far, has been almost entirely concerned with struggle of the silenced imagination for the right to speak. The next chapter shall examine this struggle in detail.
(2) “For, as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature – everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed. Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one – a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be.” (Cahill, 1995).